Month: February 2018

Where do old satellites go when they die?

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Like every other machine, satellites do not last forever. Whether their job is to observe weather, measure greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, or point away from Earth to study the stars, eventually all satellites grow old, wear out, and die, just like old washing machines and vacuum cleaners.Cartoon of old, worn out spacecraft, with long grey beard and patches on solar panels.

So what happens when a trusty satellite’s time has come? These days there are two choices, depending on how high the satellite is. For the closer satellites, engineers will use its last bit of fuel to slow it down. That way, it will fall out of orbit and burn up in the atmosphere.

The second choice is to send the satellite even farther away from Earth. It can take a lot of fuel for a satellite to slow down enough to fall back into the atmosphere. That is especially true if a satellite is in a very high orbit. For many of these high satellites, it takes less fuel to blast it farther into space than to send it back to Earth.

Burning metal and “spacecraft cemeteries”

Getting rid of the smaller satellites in low orbits is simple. The heat from the friction of the air burns up the satellite as it falls toward Earth at thousands of miles per hour. Ta-da! No more satellite.

What about bigger things like space stations and larger spacecraft in low orbit? These objects might not entirely burn up before reaching the ground. There is a solution—spacecraft operators can plan for the final destination of their old satellites to make sure that any debris falls into a remote area. This place even has a nickname—the Spacecraft Cemetery! It’s in the Pacific Ocean and is pretty much the farthest place from any human civilization you can find.Simple map of Pacific Ocean and surround land masses. Area in South Pacific is circled in red and labeled spacecraft cemetery.

(Image: Spacecraft cemetery in the South Pacific Ocean, far from where anyone lives. Source: NASA)

“Graveyard orbits”

What about those higher satellites we blast farther away? Those we send into a “graveyard orbit.” This is an orbit almost 200 miles farther away from Earth than the farthest active satellites. And it’s a whopping 22,400 miles above Earth!

So is that the end of it for these far-away satellites? As far as you and I are concerned it is! However, some of these satellites will remain in orbit for a very, very long time. Perhaps someday in the future, humans may need to send “space garbage trucks” to clean these up. But for now, at least, they will be out of the way.

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Laser Scans Reveal Maya “Megalopolis” Below Guatemalan Jungle

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In what’s being hailed as a “major breakthrough” in Maya archaeology, researchers have identified the ruins of more than 60,000 houses, palaces, elevated highways, and other human-made features that have been hidden for centuries under the jungles of northern Guatemala.

Using a revolutionary technology known as LiDAR (short for “Light Detection And Ranging”), scholars digitally removed the tree canopy from aerial images of the now-unpopulated landscape, revealing the ruins of a sprawling pre-Columbian civilization that was far more complex and interconnected than most Maya specialists had supposed.

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(Image: Laser technology known as LiDAR digitally removes the forest canopy to reveal ancient ruins, showing that Maya cities such as Tikal were much larger than ground-based research had suggested. Source: National Geographic)

The project mapped more than 800 square miles (2,100 square kilometres) of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in the Petén region of Guatemala, producing the largest LiDAR data set ever obtained for archaeological research.

The results suggest that Central America supported an advanced civilization that was, at its peak some 1,200 years ago, more comparable to sophisticated cultures such as ancient Greece or China than to the scattered and sparsely populated city-states that ground-based research had long suggested.

In addition to hundreds of previously unknown structures, the LiDAR images show raised highways connecting urban centres and quarries. Complex irrigation and terracing systems supported intensive agriculture capable of feeding masses of workers who dramatically reshaped the landscape.

The ancient Maya never used the wheel or beasts of burden, yet “this was a civilization that was literally moving mountains,” said Marcello Canuto, a Tulane University archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer who participated in the project.

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